May 5, 2013


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Kyrie Orbis factor

Christe, qui lux es et dies

In manus tuas I

Gloria, Missa Puer natus est

Regina coeli

Salvator mundi, Domine

Alleluia. Confitemini

Sanctus, Missa Euge bone

In pace, in idipsum dormiam

Agnus Dei, Missa Puer natus est

Christopher Tye (ca. 1505-1573)

William Byrd (ca. 1539-1623)

John Sheppard (ca. 1515-1558)

Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585)

Robert White (1538-1574)

Thomas Tallis

John Sheppard

Christopher Tye

John Sheppard

Thomas Tallis



 Kristina Boerger, Melissa Fogarty,
Michele Kennedy, Dominique Surh – 
Luthien Brackett – mezzo-soprano
Robert Isaacs – countertenor
Thom Baker, Neil Farrell, Michael Steinberger – tenors
Jeffrey Johnson – baritone
Kurt-Owen Richards – bass

Commentary on the Program

by Alexander Blachly

Mary Tudor’s motto was Veritas temporis filia—”Truth, the daughter of time.” For her the truth was true religion, the old religion of her grandfather, Henry VII, of her mother, Catherine of Aragon, of her cousin, Emperor Charles V, of his son and her husband, Philip II. Truth was Roman Catholicism. She regarded it as only a matter of time before this truth would win out over the error of her father, Henry VIII, and of her half-brother, Edward VI, whose English Protestantism rejected allegiance to the pope, veneration of Mary, and, perhaps most importantly from Mary’s perspective, celebration of the Latin Mass.

Were Mary alive today, she would no doubt see the present concert celebrating her musical and liturgical achievements as the triumph of her motto and proof that it was not just a slogan but a law of history. Yet it has taken four and a half centuries since her death in 1558 for this “truth” to emerge. The religious history of England following Mary’s death witnessed the firm establishment of English Protestantism, from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II; the banishment of the Latin rite from English churches; the Anglican rejection of the “divine” status of Mary; and, more politically, allegiance to the pope as heresy and, for many years, treason. Moreover, Protestant historians have attacked Mary Tudor personally, even quite recently portraying her as “Bloody Mary,” a ruthless, reactionary, and ultimately “alien” presence on the English throne. In 1964 A.G. Dickens characterized her years as queen as a period of “exceptional religious and cultural sterility.” David Loades in 1965 concurred in the judgment of Mary as “a Spaniard at heart.” And in 1977 Geoffrey R. Elton described Mary as “arrogant, bigoted, stubborn, suspicious and (not to put too fine a point on it) rather stupid.”

Her achievements in the arts have been seen as steps backwards, obstructing the development of English music and ritual. In this view, the five years she ruled, beginning in 1553, were a time of religious and cultural blindness best overlooked and forgotten. Even music historians have tended to dismiss the music written for Mary as old-fashioned and generally uninteresting.

Only with Daniel Bennett Page’s “Uniform and Catholic: Church Music in the Reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1558)” (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1996) has a new assessment of Mary and her music begun to emerge. Page takes note of the “unprecedented scale, complexity, and systematic unity” of Mary’s music, “ranging from seven- and eight-voice festal polyphony, through motets and antiphons dense with allegorical meaning, to larger cycles of choral and organ hymns and antiphons.” He finds that “Mary’s regime cultivated musical repertories sophisticated in their symbolic content and innovative in their compositional design.”

Mary’s senior ecclesiastical advisor, cardinal and papal legate Reginald Pole, archbishop of Canterbury, taught that the outward observances of liturgical ceremony “wyll gyve more light than all the readynge of Scrypture can doe,” a belief Page characterizes as a “pastoral theology of Catholic ritual.” Pole himself seems not to have been enthusiastic about complex music, but we can easily understand how his views on ceremony in general might be translated by others into a passion for rich-textured, sonorously impressive polyphony.

Initially, Mary’s focus as queen was to restore the Sarum rite (the traditional Catholic rite of England), outlawed under Edward’s 1549 Act of Uniformity. The Act Against Superstitious Books and Images of the following year ordered the destruction of all Latin ceremonial books and all specifically Catholic images. With choirs, altars, and organs having been disbanded, dissolved, or dismantled under Henry VIII and Edward VI, it was no simple matter to restore the elaborate ritual and magnificence of the Old Religion. That Mary was so successful in this endeavor can be accounted for in three ways. In the first place, under Henry VIII and Edward, Protestantism had not taken hold with the people to the degree it was to do under Elizabeth I. Much of the Catholic tradition remained in memory and still felt familiar and comfortable. Secondly, composers and singers welcomed the opportunity to test the limits of their abilities in creating the most impressive and “artistic” music possible. Their charge was to pursue the aesthetic of intellectually demanding composition, rejecting all that was “Protestant” and “simple” in favor of abstract, even obscure, musical effects. Thus, the music during Mary’s reign was unusually splendid and impressive. Thirdly, Mary showed formidable skill in her ability to organize and motivate, and she was not one to back down when confronted with opposition. Those who felt an allegiance to Catholicism found in her a champion of uncommon courage and strength.

“Restoration” for musicians meant, first of all, a return to Latin music, most prominently the Gregorian chant of the Sarum rite, and, more particularly still, music for the Mass and Office. Chant-based works had always represented a substantial percentage of the English sacred polyphony composed prior to the advent of Protestantism. Now, under Mary, composers cultivated chant-based polyphony aggressively, using chant not only as a cantus firmus (foundation voice) or as a melodic source for points of imitation but also as an emblematic element, proclaiming Catholic orthodoxy for all to hear. Gregorian chant thus assumed the symbolic role of signifying the restoration of the Catholic liturgy.

Mary’s composers utilized chant in a variety of ways. The equal-note “emblematic” style featured the chant in a chain of equal long notes. Sometimes the chant melody would appear in the highest voice, at other times in the tenor, as in White’s Regina coeli. Tallis adopts a more subtle approach in his hymn settings, though one equally “abstract”: he first presents the chant melody (in the highest voice) in triple meter, switching to duple meter for the final polyphonic verse. In his Salvator mundi the result is a tour-de-force, where a chant clearly intended for free declamation (as can be heard in verses 1 and 3, sung in unaccompanied chant) is forced into triple meter (verses 2 and 4) and into the equally awkward duple meter (verse 5). Since the melody does not fit naturally into either triple or duple meter, Tallis must resort to ingenious melodic and harmonic strategems in each polyphonic verse to arrive at a final cadence in a way that makes musical sense.

How are we to understand a compositional approach that elevates ingenuity and difficulty above simplicity and tunefulness? To say that Mary’s composers were merely cultivating a style opposed to and the opposite of all that defined “Protestant” music does not tell the whole story. Complex, elaborate music had been the hallmark of the English Catholic tradition from the time of the Old Hall Manuscript (early 15th century) and before. The tradition was essentially medieval in orientation, and, indeed, Tallis’s procedure in his hymns recalls the earliest medieval motets, where one finds chant melodies transformed into motet tenors by their arbitrary rearrangement into repeating rhythmic patterns. The striking feature of the procedure is the subjugation of melody to non-musical—and therefore musically arbitrary—patterning. To the extent that the approach is the consequence of a philosophical premise, a medieval composer might explain that that which is “mathematical,” “unchanging,” and “essential” will always take priority over that which is “accidental.” In the medieval motet, the unchanging feature was the pattern. In Tallis’s hymn settings it was the meter. In both cases, the chant underwent transformation by virtue of an unyielding principle. The challenge for the medieval composer, as for Tallis, was to create under these intellectual constraints a work of music that was musically convincing. Tallis went further, creating music that has strong sensual appeal by virtue of its sonorities and colorful harmonies.

In his 7-voice Missa Puer natus est, Tallis subjects the chant cantus firmus to an even more formidably abstract treatment, far removed from easy recognition: he assigns each cantus firmus note a duration based on the vowel associated with it in the original Christmas Mass introit. The vowels have the values a=1, e=2, i=3, o=4, u=5. Thus, for the first three notes, G, d, d, originally sung to the word “Puer” (G-d on the syllable “Pu-” and d on “er”), the durations are: five semibreves of G, five semibreves of d, then two more semibreves of d. The five semibreves of G are further obscured by being divided into a dotted breve followed by an undotted breve, the division being a function of the natural declamation of the Mass text. Credit for recognizing the chant melody and for determining the arcane key by which Tallis assigned each note its duration belongs to English scholar John Caldwell. Page believes that Tallis’s procedure alludes to Mary’s motto Veritas temporis filia by way of its “highly atypical manipulation of temporal values.” We might speculate further that deriving the “time” of each note from the “Puer natus” text represents another form of “truth,” the truth that the original text and melody together had a status derived directly from heaven and expressible by the translation of the vowels into numerical equivalents. Tallis’s choice of chant cantus firmus also has symbolic significance—it refers to Mary Tudor’s pregnancy in 1554, a pregnancy that promised Mary an heir and England a future monarch by filial descent. Not only did a pregnancy at this point in Mary’s career (she was 37) border on the miraculous, inspiring comparisons with the Biblical Sarah, Rachel, and Anna, but it was easily seen to be part of God’s plan to guarantee Mary’s “Catholic” restoration into the future. That the Puer natus est Mass should be for seven voices is also no accident: the seven-voice texture points to Mary Tudor as the earthly counterpart of the heavenly Mary, whose number was traditionally understood to be seven because of her seven sorrows, seven joys, seven acts of mercy, etc. (In the event, Queen Mary had what appears to have been a “phantom pregnancy,” which left no heir.)

Neither Tye’s Kyrie Orbis factor nor his Missa Euge bone has been securely dated, but both can be assigned to Mary’s reign: Kyrie Orbis factor because it requires alternatim performance with Gregorian chant, the Missa Euge bone because of its title. Both works eschew the use of cantus firmus or other predictable effects in favor of densely packed, irregular points of imitation and biting dissonances. Page argues convincingly that the words “Euge bone,” which come from the parable of the “good and faithful servant,” refer to a pair of sermons by John Harpsfield and James Brooks delivered and published in the autumn of 1553. Both sermons put special emphasis on the words “Euge bone” (Matthew 25: 211; Luke 19:17), which the two preachers found applicable to Mary. According to their argument, Mary, for having restored Catholicism to England, was a “faithful servant,” and, having been faithful over a few things, she could now be expected to have power over many. Harpsfield explicitly compared Mary to Judith, Hester, and Deborah, while Brooks compared her to Judith, the Virgin Mary, Saint Helena, and Catherine of Aragon—all devoutly religious women. The words “Euge bone” thus took on a symbolic meaning in Mary’s reign, widely understood to refer to her as God’s agent in having effected the restoration of English Catholicism.

One of White’s several settings of the Compline hymn Christe qui lux es et dies places the chant melody in the highest voice in slow-moving breves. Beneath it four supporting voices create a rich, English-style harmony replete with cross relations between B-flat and B-natural, F-sharp and F-natural, C-sharp and C-natural. In another setting of the same hymn, also set with verses in richly harmonized chant alternating with unaccompanied unison chant verse by verse, White had the harmonizing voices sing note for note with the chant voice, with this voice singing the chant in the same rhythm as in the unaccompanied verses. Byrd also tried his hand at this latter technique in what is considered one of his earliest works. But Byrd did White one better, by harmonizing all verses except the first and last, with the chant melody migrating from voice to voice in each succeeding verse (Bassus to Tenor to Contratenor to Altus to Superius). Since Byrd’s setting survives only in the so-called Dow partbooks of 1581-88, there is no proof that he wrote it during Mary’s reign, but if the supposition that it represents the experimental effort of a composer not yet in his 20th year is true, we can safely date it to that time. Its emphasis on Gregorian chant as a foundation of the texture is something it has in common with all the other works on this afternoon’s program, which singly and together attest to Mary Tudor’s central role in the revitalization of Latin music for the Catholic rite in the years 1553 to 1558. Hearing these pieces, we, like Queen Mary herself, may rejoice in the achievements of England’s Catholic composers.

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